UVa Researcher Finds High-Quality Marriages Help to Calm Nerves

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Healthy Marriage

UVa researchers see power of touch

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A UVa neuroscientist has found that women under stress who hold their husbands' hands show signs of immediate relief, which can clearly be seen on their brain scans. "This is the first study of the neurological reactions to human touch in a threatening situation, and the first study to measure how the brain facilitates the health-enhancing properties of close social relationships," says Dr. James A. Coan, author of the study in Psychological Science journal.

Dr. Coan, an assistant professor in the UVa Neuroscience Graduate Program and Department of Psychology, conducted a study involving several couples who rated themselves as highly satisfied with their marriages. Coan and colleagues designed a functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) study in which 16 married women were subjected to the threat of a very mild electric shock while they by turns held their husband's hand, the hand of a stranger (male) or no hand at all. The MRI was able to show how these women's brains responded to this handholding while in a threatening situation.

The results showed a large decrease in the brain response to threat as a function of spouse handholding, and a limited decrease in this response as a function of stranger handholding.

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